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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Design Thinking Sustainability

The designers have been designing tools, processes, and methods to support and not to change people's behavior. In contrast designing for sustainability would fundamentally require changing people's behavior. The behavior change to achieve the sustainability goals would mean offering different alternatives, encourage reduced consumption, make people conscious of their behavior, and leverage peer pressure and competition. The design that maintains status quo will not help to achieve sustainability goals. The design will have to be provocative and challenge user's assumptions in many ways.

Design Thinking is about how you think and not what you know; it is about the journey and not the destination. For a problem of massive scale such as sustainability where we still know a little and the desired outcome may take years, following are some elements of design thinking that could help make world a better place to live for the generations to come.

Ambidextrous-thinking: Sustainability being fundamentally a sociological, psychological, and economical problem designers not only need to synthesize what they observe but to also design their solutions based on well-analyzed hard facts. It requires the designers to use both sides of their brains, left and right, to feel and to think. Human beings respond to positive and negative incentives e.g. charging people for grocery bags, allow hybrids cars in the carpool lanes etc. Ambidextrous approach allows designing creative incentives such as showing real-time gas consumption in Prius that changes the driver's behavior. It also prevents blindly rolling out initiatives that feel right but are outright wrong such as paper bags instead of plastic. Even though they are easy to down-cycle paper bags consume more energy to manufacture compared to plastic bags. All types of reasoning - inductive, deductive, and abductive - are quintessential to dream, design, and validate the solutions.

Analogous research: This approach allows designers to explore analogous problems with similar characteristics in other domains to gain insights and be inspired. Weight loss programs and alcohol support groups use social levers such as community support, peer pressure, and competition to help change people's behavior. The green social networks such as Carbonrally and Climate Culture are designed to leverage social competition towards green living. Similarly the community support aspect behind the fast growing fitness chain for women, Curve, can be applied to understand the role of community in changing people's behavior. Wiser Earth is an effort in this direction that uses community to connect people with non-profit and businesses to work together towards a sustainable world.

Researching an analogous domain is even more important when the primary domain such as sustainability does not allow to experiment the solution effectively due to its dry, non-tangible, and emerging nature. When given a task to design an emergency room a few people from IDEO went to a NASCAR race to observe the pit crew to better understand what kind of things can go wrong under emergency and how people respond to those events.

Empathy: Put yourself in the shoes of the people you are trying to change. As Thomas Friedman says people are having a green party and not a green revolution. Go to these green parties and follow people around to better understand what it will take to turn these parties into a true green revolution. Is it lack of awareness, motivation, or an incentive? Gain empathy for the people and understand their perspective in their context - what will it take socially and economically for them to change their behavior?

Context is critical for design thinking. Observing and talking to people in their natural environment designers gain empathy for the people and discover behavior patterns that they would have not found had they sat in their offices thinking how they should change people's behavior.

Holistic multidisciplinary approach: The sustainability efforts span across different culture, countries, background, and belief systems. To successfully solve this problem from the tools, behavior, and policies perspective people from the different disciplines such as engineers, scientists, interaction designers, social scientists, policy makers, and business executives need to come together and collaboratively work on it. Naive, curious, and inclusive mindset allows designers to holistically study the problem from the perspective of all the stakeholders - manufacturers, consumers, policy makers etc. The tools, technology, incentives, and policies, if designed in isolation, leave out gaps and often result into confirmation bias.

Be tangible and iterate often: This is a daunting problem and boiling the ocean would lead to an analysis paralysis nightmare. This is not a mature domain and there are no certainties around what will work and what won't. The best approach would be to rapidly prototype a solution to get early feedback from the consumers and iterate it often. There has been an ongoing debate on carbon tax versus carbon cap-and-trade. Instead of getting stuck in the controversy, opinions, and abstract ideas there is an opportunity to build something tangible and let people validate their own assumptions. A tangible object against an abstract concept enables better conversations and feedback channels since it is about the solution and not about the problem.

Focus on journey and emergent experimentation: Design thinking is about thinking in a different way and not about having any specific skills. It focuses on the journey, the method, and not on the outcome. People demand instant gratification but sustainability is not like the biggest looser competition where your weekly weigh-in would tell you where you are. It will take us years before we can actually quantify the impact of sustainability efforts that we are asking people to put in today. It is one of those initiatives that may not see any short term benefits at all. For such initiatives top-down compliance strategy won't work. A good design with emergent experimentation will focus on the journey and not the destination with the iterative results on the way to convince people how a change in their behavior slowly change the world around them. People will believe in the journey and the emergent experimentation.

Update: John R. Ehrenfeld who is currently serving as an Executive Director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology prior to his career as the Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment, an interdisciplinary educational, research, and policy program has picked up this story and posted on his blog Sustainability by Design.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cloud Computing Strategy Crucial For eBay To Become One-stop E-commerce Shop

"We were the biggest and the best. And when you're the biggest and the best, there's a strong tendency to try to preserve that.....EBay has a storied past. But frankly, it's a past we've held onto too much." This is what the CEO of eBay, John Donahoe, told the analysts while explaining eBay's three-year revival plan to achieve low single digit growth. The outlined plan calls for continued investment into Skype, PayPal, and secondary-channels with an end goal to move eBay beyond an auction place to make it a one-stop e-commerce shop. Lack of explicit diversification plans to capture the fast growing e-commerce market (15% to 20% in the next five years) makes me wonder if eBay correctly assesses its core and context at this juncture and has the right infrastructure to support its strategy.

eBay's application-led multi-generation platform strategy has supported its core business strategy really well but eBay is significantly under-invested in the cloud computing to meet the new challenges. Unified e-commerce experience requires connecting heterogeneous and radically disparate data sources, applications, and their capabilities to monetize the traffic across them. Even if eBay does not tightly integrate Skype with PayPal and auction it should have the infrastructure to mine the information from Skype to support its strategy to gain major share of the e-commerce market especially to go after the digital goods such as e-books, songs, videos, ring tones etc. It would be a step backwards to limit the strategy view to the physical goods and a narrow transactional platform and not look at the holistic total customer experience that is SaaS delivered with the help of dynamic and elastic cloud-based platform.

MySpace is ahead in the game to monetize the immense clickstream data with the help of the cloud computing. eBay has huge untapped value in the social interaction and e-commerce data that it collects from all its assets. A right analytic cloud platform could make eBay rich from this gold mine. Social media cloud computing strategy is crucial for eBay not only to make competition irrelevant by going after emerging secondary markets but also to better prepare eBay for the megatrends such as millennial and sustainability. If eBay does successfully execute this strategy, tomorrow's eBay may not look like what you and I have seen so far.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Top Cloud, Virtualization, and SaaS Blogs - My Blog Makes The Cut

The organizers of the Under The Radar Conference has listed me as "best bloggers and journalists who’ve distilled this foggy space down to a well-defined, understandable sector" in the category of the top cloud, virtualization, and SaaS blogs. Some of the other names include Nick Carr, Geva Perry, and MR Rangaswami. I have also been invited to the conference. I am looking forward to the event and the energy that all the early stage start-ups bring in!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Creating, Nurturing, and Sustaining Innovation Clusters

McKinsey has partnered with the World Economic Forum to create an “Innovation Heat Map" to identify innovation clusters based on the analysis of the variables that drive innovation. The clusters are plotted on a classic McKinsey 2x2 that measures the size of a cluster on momentum versus diversity. I would encourage you to read the detailed analysis and look at the innovation heat map. The clusters are classified as:

Dynamic oceans: Large and vibrant innovation ecosystems with continuous creation and destruction of new businesses. Leading innovators and primary sectors change organically as the hub frequently reinvents itself through significant breakthrough innovations.

Silent lakes:
Slow-growing innovation ecosystems backed by a narrow range of very large established companies that operate in a handful of sectors. These clusters are frequently the source of a steady stream of “evolutionary” innovations and step-wise improvements.

Shrinking pools:
Innovation hubs that are unable to broaden their areas of activity or increase their lists of innovators and so find themselves slowly migrating down the value chain, as their narrow sector becomes less innovation driven and increasingly commoditized.

Hot springs:
A small and fast-growing hub that relies on a small number of companies to establish itself as a relevant world player in a narrow sector.

While I applaud the efforts behind analyzing the vast amount of indicators to find patterns that explain certain macroeconomic innovation trends I disagree with the idea of measuring innovation based on number of patents. The effectiveness of our (US) patent system to measure innovation effectively across industries is questionable. How many of these patents are actually converted into real innovations? This problem is exasperated when we involve the patent systems of the countries across the globe.

This analysis assumes minimum infrastructure base as a qualifier to level the playing field. Though I do appreciate the intent of this assumption, this approach leaves out the countries who innovate despite of poor infrastructure such as India and China. An alternate approach could have been a weighted cluster that focuses on the efficiency of the clusters to demonstrate the untapped innovation potential due to lack of infrastructure.

These clusters provide an opportunity to explore some correlations. Hot Springs regions' growth is correlated to untapped natural resources and recent influx of skilled immigrants. This might explain Canada and Australia being Hot Spring regions due to their untapped natural resources and the immigration policies designed to attract highly skilled an well educated prospective immigrants.

To make this analysis even more compelling I would like to go back few years more than the current nine years of data and choose time-based visualization such as Gap Minder. This might reveal some interesting patterns about how the clusters grow from small to big and vice versa and change quadrants as the years go by. This visualization would not only allow to add filters but would also allow to track relative progress of a subset of clusters. We might also be to see how the clusters move from silent lake to dead pool since they cannot innovate themselves out of the current crisis e.g. auto and manufacturing regions in the US.
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